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Is Thailand Southeast Asia's weak link?

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In Brief

Thailand is Southeast Asia's second-biggest economy and has been one of its economic success stories over the past decade. The coup after the recent political standoff threatens not only to slash its recent 6.5 per cent growth rate but also trash the fragile foundations of its democracy.

While Indonesia is the region's largest economy and the epicentre of the ASEAN polity and Singapore is its anchor in trade and financial intermediation with the global economy


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, Thailand’s entrenchment as the dynamic hub of regional production networks — in automobiles and other consumer durables — has become emblematic of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) enterprise and movement towards its conclusion through 2015.

To have Thailand falter at a time of ambitious integration is not good for the regional economy or ASEAN centrality in Asian affairs. Thailand has been a leading exponent of these integration efforts and is one country in ASEAN that is better-prepared than most to deal with greater intra-regional mobility of goods, services, capital and people consistently with the ambition of the AEC. Thailand is host to at least 1.7 million migrant workers from Myanmar. Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s new frontier, economically and politically, and Thailand benefits from the investment, construction and consumption boom just across its border. As cross-border transport and communication links with Myanmar improve, the opportunities for Thai firms appear boundless. The problems at home in Bangkok undermine both the Myanmar potential for Thailand and make Thailand a more difficult neighbour for Myanmar as that country seeks to throw off its militarily encumbered past.

Thailand’s economy is flexible and globally connected — a thriving centre of production networks that enhance regional productivity and efficiency. As ASEAN efforts at regionalising the market and production are more deeply entrenched, Thailand would have been positioned at the leading edge to take advantage of the regional opportunity. Not only do political troubles and the coup pose the usual issues of international investor confidence for Thailand itself, they also raise questions about the regime’s ability and commitment to follow through on the AEC undertaking.

This, then, is not just another in the cycle of Thailand’s routine military coups. It comes with heavy baggage for ASEAN and the region as a whole.

As Nich Farrelly points out in this week’s lead essay, and in a feature in the latest issue of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Thailand has failed to build a stable consensus about how to distribute political and economic power. And powerful interests, including in the palace and the army, don’t respect electoral mandates … If things go badly wrong, Thailand — one of the most successful societies in Asia and comfortable with its positive international and regional standing — could topple from its perch’.

Farrelly notes that transitions of political power in the polities of Southeast Asia are all in varying degrees subject to the Thai risk.

The government of deposed former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the older brother of former prime minister Yingluck, which held power from 2001 until the coup of 2006, Farrelly explains, represented an uncomfortable challenge to the old order of royal, military and bureaucratic authority.

Thaksin’s interpretation of Thai politics was of a confronting, take-no-prisoners-style, even if it was wildly popular. The army and the palace couldn’t accept the kudos that Thaksin accumulated, or the way ‘he so profitably blurred the boundaries between business and politics’.

Thaksin threatened to comprehensively totally rout those he defeated at the ballot box. The coup of 19 September 2006 was the response to his electoral success and the years since have witnessed the tough struggle to re-define Thai democracy.

The forces aligned with Thaksin still command enough support to win elections, as they did in the disputed election in February 2014 although, as Farrelly observes, neither side of the Thai political contest is without blemish in now denying the Thai people the chance to make their choice through a poll.

The nature of the Thai problem, Farrelly argues, is not atypical in the region. Elite interests in many Southeast Asian polities often hold fundamentally undemocratic perspectives. The born-to-rule and take-all-spoils culture remains deeply entrenched. This culture is not, of course, absent in the most mature democracies but democratic restraint is clearly not yet deeply ingrained in Thailand or other countries in the region.

Thailand faces what Farrelly calls ‘an awkward moment at the end of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s reign, when ‘defence of the monarchy has become the over-riding concern’. There are parallels in the primacy of this one institution across the region: but Myanmar’s military, Malaysian ethno-elites and Indonesia’s plutocrats now all face the prospect of internet-inspired mobilisations, even insurrections, and looking up at Thailand’s quagmire with concern.

Is it too much to hope that Thailand’s military leaders, seeing clearly the threat to their country’s prosperity and social cohesion in the medium to long term, might be impelled to reach out across the divide to build consensus, democratically imposed? Hopefully it is not.

The good news is that, despite the enormous challenges, the entrenchment of democratic institutions and the persistence of a pluralistic culture in Indonesia (the latter ironically in part a legacy that is owed to pre-democracy’s President Suharto), and its strategic leadership in ASEAN, appear set to deliver a confidence-booster to electoral transition in Southeast Asia.

Peter Drysdale is Editor of the East Asia Forum.

2 responses to “Is Thailand Southeast Asia’s weak link?”

  1. It was already a bad sign when Indonesia could only produce two presidential candidates for the 9 July election. This was mainly Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s failure. He was unable to prevent his own party from destroying its chances of fielding a candidate to succeed him, despite the Democrat Party’s being the largest party in parliament for five years. All the elaborate procedures devised to set up a convention to choose the party’s candidate proved pointless.

    Since then, SBY has been powerless to stop his party’s members from backing whichever of the two presidential candidates they preferred, despite his insistence that the party remain neutral.

    There were five presidential candidates in the 2004 election and three in that of 2009. Just two candidates in 2014 for a country as diverse as Indonesia with a population of almost 250 million is far from democratic. Now that it seems almost certain that Prabowo will win the presidency, we can be pretty sure that democratic freedoms will not be extended further. We can remain open-minded, though, about just how much those freedoms will be circumscribed.

    One must feel sorry for SBY. A lot of people in Jakarta believe his vice-president will find himself in jail soon over the Century Bank bail-out. About as many predict that his second son, Ibas, will face the same fate on a different charge. This will be a sad ending for the champion of eradicating corruption.

    Thailand’s travails show the hollowness at the heart of the Bali Democracy Forum. It had little impact on ASEAN countries that were undemocratic. Now it has been shown up as incapable even of stopping an ASEAN country from lapsing into authoritarianism.

    • On 30 June, SBY’s Democrat Party announced that it had abandoned its neutral position and was now backing the Prabowo-Hatta Rajasa ticket. One of SBY’s ministers, Syarief Hasan, made the announcement. He was one of the first Democrat Party members to ignore SBY’s call for neutrality.

      Hatta Rajasa is Ibas’s father-in-law, so maybe this move will shore up SBY-Hatta family solidarity. It will also strengthen even further the parliamentary majority that Prabowo will have at his disposal if he wins on 9 July. Now his own Gerindra, Aburizal Bakrie’s Golkar, and three Muslim parties, Hatta’s PAN, the PPP and the PKS, all support Prabowo, in addition to SBY’s Democrat Party.

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